We jump from St Gregory the Theologian in the 4th century to two Byzantine theologians in the 15th century—Joseph Bryennius, a vigorous supporter of hesychastic theology, and St Mark Eugenicus, the unwavering voice of Orthodoxy at the Council of Florence. Both theologians evidence a long-standing Byzantine tradition of the prepurification of the Theotokos but now deepened and expanded by study of of the Mariological reflections of St Gregory Palamas and St Nicholas Cabasilas.
Consider these two citations from Bryennius’s homily on the Annunciation:
On one hand, no other woman has been honored above her. Since, while God foreknew all other women, he hallowed the maiden worthier than the rest of women, who was about to come into existence from a sterile mother’s womb. On the other hand, he eschewed all unworthy items with respect to this [Mary], as was reasonable; [Mary] had acquired for herself a superior virtue above all virtues and [had acquired for herself] to have been prepared as a fit receptacle of the unapproachable divinity, which had been prepurified [to prokatharthenai] through the Holy Spirit. (Quoted in Christiaan Kappes, Immaculate Conception, p. 90)
He says: ‘Yet on one hand, how did another Mother of God not come about?’ But, on the other hand: ‘Had she some sort of virtue/excellence, because of which she was honored above all women?’ First, another woman was not chosen over her, because while God foreknew all women, he sanctified the future woman from her mother’s womb, purer than other women, who were going to come to exist; but he eschewed all unworthy persons with respect to her, as is reasonable. But she procured for herself the excellence superior to all men and [procured for herself] to be prepared as a containing receptacle of the divinity, which was prepurified [to prokatharthenai] by the Holy Spirit; O what a marvel, indeed! (p. 91)
Note how Byrennius, following St John Damascene, now explicitly includes within Mary’s prepurification by the Spirit a sanctification in the womb of Anna. The grammar of the passages, Fr Kappes claims, intimates Mary’s superior possession of the virtues in “the most remote past that is possible in Greek,” to the very beginning of her existence (p. 92). Why this development in Byzantine Mariology? Kappes reasonably conjectures that the development is grounded upon the Eastern liturgical celebration of the conception of the Theotokos since the 7th century:
From the perspective of Orthodox dogmatics (given Bryennius’ de facto authority), Bryennius (and even Theophanes) justifies the application of “prepurification” to any significant mystery of Mary’s life prior to the incarnation. The Conception, Presentation, and Annunciation of Mary happen to all coincide with important liturgical feasts in the Byzantine calendar. This strongly suggests that preincarnational liturgical mysteries of the Blessed Virgin Mary can be correctly referred to as moments of “prepurification.” These moments of external glory serve to increase the intensity of her deifying participation in the interior life of grace in anticipation of her “seedless pregnancy.” (pp. 92-93)
Kappes is not anachronistically claiming that Bryennius is asserting an immaculate conception of the Theotokos, as dogmatically defined by the Latin Church. He is proposing, rather, that by the 15th century the Byzantine Church had comprehended the entirety of the Blessed Virgin’s existence within the eternal plan of God and the charismatic activity of the Holy Spirit. For over a millennia the Eastern Church had taught that the Holy Prophet Jeremiah and St John the Forerunner had been sanctified by the Spirit while in the wombs of their mothers (see St Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures 3.6). This blessing is now extended to Mary, to the very moment of her conception. At no time was she bereft of the Spirit. From the beginning she was being prepared by God to contain within herself infinite divinity. “O what a marvel, indeed!”
St Mark Eugenicus
St Mark Eugenicus studied with Joseph Bryennius and may well have been introduced by him to Latin anti-Palamite theology and the writings of St Thomas Aquinas. In the late 1430s he wrote his First Antirrhetic against Manuel Kalekas, responding to the attacks by Kalekas upon the essence/energies distinction formulated by Palamas. Within the course of his defense of Palamas, Eugenicus addresses the question of Mary’s contact with the divine essence during the nine months of her pregnancy. He quotes Palamas: “so that the spaceless one indeed fittingly might—by means of a begotten nature—be given space and be given [it] as much as it is of no threat” (p. 120). How is it possible for a mortal to hold within herself the uncreated Word without being consumed? Only, Eugenicus asserts, by an act of divine omnipotence:
Nevertheless, let one remove every rational account with respect to that which concerns the Theotokos, who alone is the most supernatural marvel among supernaturals realized from eternity, who is also higher than all rational discourse; for in a true way God wished His own omnipotence to be manifested in this woman. (Immaculate Conception, p. 128)
This is a remarkable, but difficult to interpret, statement. I confess that I find Kappes’s analysis of Eugenicus’s theology confusing, largely because of its concision and scholastic style. I gather that behind this statement lies the Eastern insistence that creatures cannot comprehend or see the essence of their Creator. Whereas the saints have been given to see the divine glory, the privilege of the Theotokos is greater still:
The only thing that can capacitate a human nature for an experience (exceeding all natural mental capacity) must be the omnipotence of the Holy Spirit. For Mark, this description of deification aptly applies to Mary’s created nature, which was predestined to glory before the ages. Once again, Mark’s correction of Manuel Kalekas lurks in the background. Kalekas claims for human nature the capacity to see the essence of God, while Manuel rejects Palamas’s alleged “energy made Flesh” Christology. Mark could object to direct theovision by noting that if one can see the divine essence clearly, a fortiori one sees the divine conceptions of such an essence. Yet, Mary’s absolute predestination means that her being itself is higher than the capacity of discursive reasoning to grasp. Ergo no one can see the essence of God or else the mystery of Mary could be known by the human reasoning.
For Mark, the Spirit miraculously capacitates the human natures of Moses and the Apostles to “contemplate” the “impersonal” divine light of Tabor, yet the concepts behind Mary’s existence rest near the really infinite perfections of divine being. Mary’s human nature per se excels all other created natures, even the actualized natures of those who possess theovision. … One can infer that the Trinity’s contingent plan, from its inceptions, for the Blessed Virgin Mary was for her to be the paragon of human nature gifted with the grace of theovision (i.e., Tabor light) in virtue of her spotless nature. As such, she has per se the perfection of the Blessed and is, ex necessitate, sinless and immaculate in body and soul. The Ephesine cannot help but justify the Blessed Virgin Mary as an incomparable pensée mère of the divine mind, for she is the meeting place for the disjunctive transcendentals of divine being. (pp. 131-133)
The surpassing excellence and sanctity of the young Theotokos is demonstrated by the fact though she is the place where the created and uncreated meet in ineffable union, she is not destroyed. She has become, as the Orthodox Church sings, the living burning bush:
The miracle that Moses witnessed on Sinai in the burning bush
Foretold your virgin childbearing, O pure Mother.
We the faithful cry to you:
Rejoice, O truly living bush!
Rejoice, O holy mountain!
Rejoice, O sanctified expanse and most holy Theotokos!
Given the fiery union of divinity and humanity in her womb, the necessity of Mary’s prepurification by the Spirit becomes manifest. “But he did so with her,” Mark writes, “after he prepurified her through a most profuse grace by means of the protecting Holy Spirit and divine power” (p. 137). Her prepurification was not a cleansing from sin but rather spiritual preparation for the miracle of the divine conception.
In his wonderful homily on the Annunciation, St Gregory Palamas refers to the vision of the prophet Isaiah, where the seraphim, with a pair of tongs, takes a burning coal from the holy fire and touches the lips of the prophet. He then states that the tongs were identical to the burning bush seen by Moses on Mount Sinai—and both typologically prefigure the Theotokos:
Surely it is obvious to anyone that the Virgin Mother is both the burning bush and the tongs. She conceived the divine fire within her and was not burnt, and an archangel ministered at the conception, and through her the Bearer of the sins of the world was united with the human race, purifying us thoroughly by means of this indescribable bond. The Virgin Mother, and she alone, is the frontier between created and uncreated nature. All who know God will recognize her as the one who contained Him who cannot be contained. All who sing hymns to God will praise her next after Him. She is the cause of the benefits which preceded her, the protectress of those which came after, and through her those good things which are eternal shall be received. She is the theme of the prophets, the first of the apostles, the support of the martyrs, the dais of the teachers. She is the glory of those on earth, the delight of those in heaven, the adornment of the whole creation. She is the beginning, fount and root of the hope stored up for in in heaven. (Hom. 14.15)
Eugenicus and the Immaculate Conception
What did St Mark of Ephesus think about the Immaculate Conception? As far as we know, he never attacked or refuted the Latin doctrine, which is itself odd, as he never hesitated to name the multiple heresies of the Roman Church. Eugenicus undoubtedly knew of it. It had been vigorously debated by Dominicans and Franciscans at the Council of Basel, and this inter-Latin debate would surely have continued, at least informally, at the Council of Ferrara-Florence. And yet Eugenicus appears to have remained silent. Why the failure to cite the Immaculate Conception doctrine as yet another Latin innovation? Perhaps, suggests Kappes, Eugenicus did not see the innovation as being quite the innovation modern Orthodox think it to be.
As we have seen, modern Orthodox frequently cite the Augustinian doctrine of corporate guilt as the driving reason for opposition to the Roman doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (see “The Ecumenical Stain of Original Sin“). But in the 15th century, as Eugenicus well knew, competing construals of original sin existed within the Western Church (as they do today). According to the Franciscan school, Adam alone is personally guilty for his sin: “Original sin is purely a case of a privation (by divine decree) of a deiform and supernatural grace, which carries with it negative corollaries in the human body” (p. 162, n. 340). Do we know how either Eugenicus or his contemporaries evaluated this Scotist construal of original sin?
In any case, given the Byzantine tradition of the Prokathartheisa, perhaps the Atlas of Orthodoxy might simply have shrugged his shoulders and remarked, “What’s the fuss?”
(For a helpful review of Fr Kappes’s book, see J. Isaac Goff, “Mark of Ephesus, An Orthodox Defender of Mary Immaculate?“)